Not Made In The Shade: Can Solar And Trees Get Along?

The solar vs. trees conflict isn’t new, but it’s popping up more and more as solar gains in urban and suburban popularity. Typically, it manifests as a fight. Sometimes it even becomes a legal battle. But always at its heart is the question: Does neighbor Joe’s right to a big, beautiful tree on his property trump neighbor Jane’s right to unshaded solar panels on her rooftop?

Dan Staley is proposing to reframe the discussion. In a presentation at the Ecological Society of America’s conference in Portland, Ore., last week — reported first in the Oregonian — the Colorado planner and consultant suggested that trees and solar can thrive together in cities, if we accept that both are desired and necessary for our future.

solar vs. trees

image via Shutterstock

“Must property owners make an all-or-nothing choice: trees or solar power?” Staley asked in the introduction to his session. “The answer in many cases is no – trees and solar panels can coexist so communities can enjoy the benefits of both.”

The root of the issue is the big impact that shade can have on solar power production; a National Renewable Energy Laboratory study reported: “Partial shading of PV installations has a disproportionate impact on power production. For a single-string grid-tied PV system, a shadow can represent a reduction in power over 30 times its physical size.”

Researchers are working on technological fixes that can help reduce this impact — the NREL, using a new shade simulation test protocol, recently reported that “under heavy shading conditions the use of microinverters instead of typical string inverters can help mitigate the impacts of shade by improving system performance by more than 12 percent.”

Still, the best-case scenario is to have solar panels soaking up sunshine unencumbered. Staley gets this. But what’s striking about his written presentation is that while it advocates for solar, he begins and ends by outlining the virtues of trees – the economic virtue of cooling shade; the social virtue of enhanced quality of life; and as for the ecological virtue, well, on that count, any schoolchild can explain why trees are good.

Staley thus highlights a truth that gets lost in the occasional solar vs. tree battles that flare up: tree people and solar people are on the same side.

“The key here is that the solar industry likes trees as well, and a major reason they are in the profession is because they also want to preserve the environment,” Staley writes. “They are very amenable to solutions and will work with the homeowner to preserve trees. The issue now is to connect arborists and solar installers to have everyone understand tree growth rates and tree placement.”

Staley’s ideas for helping solar and trees get along come at the parcel and neighborhood scale.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

    • http://twitter.com/StrickerSara Sara Stricker

      This is something I never thought about, even though I advocate solar energy. My town (Burlington, NJ) just installed a lot of solar panels to power the streetlights, which I thought was very innovative, but I had never considered that our many trees might block the panels. Thought-provoking and informative, thank you!

    • http://www.sepco-solarlighting.com/ Liz Karschner

      Wow, what a great post! People do need to pay close attention to where they plant their trees to make sure they can cohabitate peacefully. I too am an advocate for solar, but also a tree lover too and don’t think it is always necessary to cut down the trees just to install solar. We have dealt with shading issues here at work as well, I even wrote a post about it:
      http://www.sepco-solarlighting.com/blog/bid/94029/Location-Location-Location-Why-Shading-is-Bad-for-Solar-Systems But as stated even in my post, solar power can be installed remotely in a more sunny location with the wires set underground to their final destination whether it is a home, building, or like with us, lighting.

      • Pete

        Thanks for your note, Liz. Your post is a nifty solution to consider in situations where shade complicates installation of rooftop solar! Since writing the story it occurs to me that another option for people to think about could be community solar. Our recent story on the new Xcel program in Colorado has really opened my eyes to that as a possibility. It’s not available everywhere, but should be encouraged and supported!
        Thanks for reading,
        Pete